The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug review

Review Ryan Lambie 8 Dec 2013 - 18:00

Peter Jackson returns with the second part of his Hobbit saga. Here's our spoiler-free review of The Desolation Of Smaug...

Handsome though Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film was to behold, it was difficult to escape the feeling that its expansive duration was one big long tease: a setting in place of events that wouldn’t properly kick into gear until the next chapter.

If you agreed with that fairly major criticism, rest assured that it doesn't apply to The Desolation Of Smaug, which, after a brief trip to a pub to get audiences up to speed with the story, accelerates to a sprint and seldom stops.

In essence, The Desolation Of Smaug is a two-and-a-half-hour chase, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the rest of The Hobbit’s heroes continuing their journey to the Lonely Mountain with an army of Orcs in hot pursuit.

Far from giving Jackson less time to explore Middle Earth’s exotic minutiae, the renewed sense of pace and vitality makes Tolkien’s world seem all the more vibrant, and some sublimely staged action set-pieces are punctuated by moments of engaging visual poetry. A shot from Bilbo’s perspective shows how huge a bumblebee looks in relation to his diminutive form. Another brief scene where Bilbo pokes his head above a canopy of trees and feels the sun on his face is unexpectedly captivating, and stands out all the more because the scene after it is so dark and intense.

Peter Jackson is surely one of the finest world builders currently working in cinema, and he packs every frame with detail and texture. An ancient town resting on a lake, all dilapidated medieval houses and rickety walkways, has the mucky charm of a Hogarth engraving. A vast subterranean cathedral, with its grey light and colossal hanging tapestries, is a genuinely eerie sight.

Against these landscapes, Jackson’s gallery of characters continues to grow. Returning characters like Orlando Bloom’s elegantly deadly Legolas and Sylvester McCoy’s eccentric Radagast the Brown are joined by Lost’s Evangeline Lilly, who appears as brave Elf warrior Tauriel. A new addition created for the film, she’s a formidable presence in battle, and brings a frison of chemistry to her scenes with Aidan Turner’s Kili (“He’s quite tall for a dwarf, don’t you think?”, she coos). Then there's Lee Pace as the flamboyant Elvenking Thranduil, Luke Evans as a somewhat surly Bard, and Stephen Fry as a the lugubrious Master of Lake-town.

Overwhelmingly, though, the film belongs to Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage as Bilbo and Thorin. With both characters compromised in some way by their own agendas - Bilbo’s now starting to feel the full, seductive effect of the ring he stole from Gollum in the first film, while Thorin is more grimly dedicated than ever to his recovery of the Arkenstone at any cost - the skills of their respective actors really begin to come into their own. Freeman’s performance is full of wit, comic timing and nervous energy (plus a new hint of aggression), while Artmitage is reliably grim-faced and unpredictable.

Although not without its moments of drama, The Desolation Of Smaug is best described as a pure action movie, with Jackson’s set-pieces positively leaping off the screen. An encounter in Mirkwood is akin to Aliens in its horror and aggression (and will surely prove quite frightening for younger audience members), while the book’s famous barrel scene is expanded and re-imagined in a fresh and thrilling way. Jackson’s fondness for beheadings and the gooey removal of limbs may push at the boundaries of the PG-13 certificate’s remit, but this harder edge is a welcome one, balanced as it is by an ever-present thread of good-natured humour.

Then we come to the much-anticipated title dragon, Smaug. As voiced and partly performed by a motion-captured Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s a fearsome beast, and gets one of the best villain’s entrances you’ll see all year. Prone to engaging in rambling monologues though he is, Smaug’s nevertheless a menacing force of nature, and his scenes sum up what makes this second Hobbit chapter so effective: there’s a far more present sense of danger here, a feeling that the central band of misfits are in real peril.

If there’s a problem with The Desolation Of Smaug, it’s that its ensemble of characters is now so broad that the constant cutting between disparate groups of Elves, Dwarves and wizards in different locations can become a little dizzying - particularly in the final third, where the sheer amount of parallel action threatens to derail the plot’s momentum somewhat.

It's a side-effect, perhaps, of taking Tolkien's lean story, splitting it into three and adding extra material from the author's other works - by increasing the canvas, some of the story's focus is lost. But as a continuation of the Hobbit film saga and as big screen escapism, The Desolation Of Smaug is a success. It's rich in Jackson's usual detail, and Howard Shore's theme is as lush as it always is.

We can't comment on how Jackson's new-fangled High-Frame Rate fares this time (the presentation we saw was in the standard 24fps), but we can report that the 3D once again adds a pleasing layer of depth to the ever-expanding Middle-earth.

Brisk and exciting, The Desolation Of Smaug delivers on the promise set up in An Unexpected Journey, while also providing a compelling bridge to next year’s third chapter. If Jackson can keep the momentum going, then 2014's There And Back Again will provide a satisfying capstone to the trilogy.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is out in UK cinemas on the 13th December.

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Great review though you may want to name Thorins actor correctly...

7th paragraph - "Richard Armstrong" should be Richard Armitage. Glad it's better than the first!

Richard Armstrong.....LMAO.

Gah - my mistake fixed. Serves me right for doing two things at one.

great review and I'm really looking forward to seeing this. I think the biggest problem the Hobbit faced is that LOTR was by it's nature being a sequel to the Hobbit, bigger more expansive and with greater consequences for middle earth. The Hobbit is always going to struggle as, as much as jackson is building it bigger than the book it still feels smaller that the LOTR films

Great review, I loved An Unexpected Journey despite its flaws and from the reviews I've read it sounds like a lot of those flaws have been fixed. Wish Jackson would take it easy on the CGI though.

But is Smaug a dragon or a wyvern? I heard the extended edition of AUE edited it to make him the latter, for some reason

It's a cartoony kids book, it makes sense that the adaptations are colourful too.

Exactly. I think people forget that, and also perhaps had hopes that because it was, to many, a 'follow-up trilogy', it would be - as is the way - darker in tone than what it followed. I'm not sure the source material really supports that kind of darkness, however. In LOTR, one of the central figures is fighting and internal battle against evil that The Hobbit only touches upon. You could say Throin has similar struggles,

"take it easy on the CGI?" Jackson is probably one of the, if not THE, biggest user of real model making going around in the movie industry. also, if any movie took it easy on the CGI, 99% of the scenes wouldn't be possible.

Simon, I don't know where else to put this, but I'm seeing some Doctor Who pictures from Time of the Doctor on other sites that don't appear to be on here. Pictures of Daleks, Cybermen, Orla Brady's character and Clara holding a turkey. Maybe they're somewhere on DoG already and I just can't find them.

No, Jackson should tone down the CG. Did we really need to see CG white orcs and that lame ass rabbit sled?

He was in LOTR, but he abandoned the models for the Hobbit and replaced them with CGI models. He also relied far less on location shooting and instead did far more with Green Screens and studios, along with the switch to CGI orcs.
Alot of films use CGI now just because it is the simple solution, rather than trying practical fx, and when you compare something like The Hobbit to LOTR it really shows!

One of the reasons for the prominent use of green screens in 'The Hobbit' films is the insanely tight five-month prep time they had between getting the official grenlight to go and cameras rolling... to put that in perspective, they had around two full years to prep the LOTR trilogy back in the late 1990's! Now granted, all the design work and scripts for the two 'Hobbit' films had been finished whilst Guillermo del Toro was still directing (one of the great 'what ifs' of recent cinema), but when Peter Jackson came onboard as director, they changed everything to his own sensibilities... and had only time to construct pieces of sets instead of entire complete sets in their own right, hence the green screen work seen now!

I'm very much of two minds about the current films; on one hand I fully understand and support the trilogy format in that it allows them to tell the full and complete story, drawing from the differing strands of the Erebor quest that Tolkien himself continued to embellish throughout his lifetime... on the other hand, the films do appear to be somewhat drawn out, with just about every scene turned up to 11, overly foreshadowing the later trilogy when 'The Hobbit' should stand on it's own, and is far, far too dark and violent and visceral for younger viewers!

'The Hobbit' is a children's adventure story that should have darkness and danger and heart and pathos in it, but told on a PG rating at most and in a brisk and breezy manner (over two films of around three hours apiece) akin to the novel... screw the Necromancer or Azog or Radagast, the story is Bilbo's story and that's what the film(s) should be about; first, last and everything in between!

Sometimes less can be SO much more...

If this is about Smaug's wings being part of his forelegs, I think it's a trend recently to portray dragons this way. It's in response to a sort of "realist" idea that leathery wings can only work like they would on bats and pteranodons.

What was so lame-ass about the rabbit sled? It was well rendered and it fed into the portrayal of Radagast as a cartoonish nature wizard.
As well as giving us a chase scene where a faithful rendition of the book would have frankly lacked dramatic impetus.

Will it ever be possible for you guys to review a 12A/PG-13 rated movie without discussing the political and economic framework of the rating itself? I understand that it may be relevant in some cases (The King's Speech), but you bring it up EVERY TIME! Is it no longer possible to just say whether a film is good or bad, and leave it at that, regardless of the rating?

Lee Pace really looks like one of the Eldar in The Hobbit. In fact, make his skin white and give him red eyes and a huge black sword that drinks souls.......

Think there may be some folks out there who are interested in what they may potentially drag their kids to see, especially if it's a wee bit more violent than the first. As long as it's made in a passing comment and not as a soap box moment I don't really mind.

I like a nice leathery wing meself. The gut of a dragon on the other hand I like to be firm and wrinkle free.

Thank you for sharing :-)

Anomander??

Surely you want the BBFC website for that type of info.

Anomander Rake has black skin, and his eyes change colour. Plus his sword doesn't so much drink souls as imprison them. But apart from that, good guess :D

There are folks out there who want more than "rated 12a for scenes of intense battle violence." Some folks like to have the context and content info in the form of a review to see just how it fits into the narrative.

I know the BBFC website offers a little more than what I have just said, but not much.

Besides, more than ever now with most movies being released mainstream as pg13/12a the content and tone are more important for parents to make an informed choice about what it is they're allowing their children to see, so it's not practical to just say if a movie is just good or bad.

You are off topic from my original point. However, to indulge you on yours - here is the full description from the BBFC.

*WARNING* *SPOILERS*

....

"Moderate violence includes a number of battles as the heroes fight giant spiders and orcs. These include sight of orcs being decapitated, including with a head held up, and orcs being shot with arrows, including arrows which pierce their heads. There is also frequent use of bladed weapons. The fighting is fantastical and lacking any emphasis on blood. It is very similar to the action seen in the previous film in the series, as well as that seen in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.

There is threat when a character is bound in a giant spider's web and when the character is pursued through a dark forest as they attempt to escape. There is also threat from the dragon, Smaug, who breathes large blasts of fire, and brief threat to children from attacking orcs.

THE HOBBIT THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG also features mild sex references and brief sight of injury following an arrow wound to a leg."

You were saying?

I like the notion of the Hobbit book being something Bilbo would have told children, while the actual story, as related in appendixes by Tolkien, is far more intricate and dangerous, and the decision by Gandalf to back Thorin's quest has severe ramifications throughout the whole region. That's why I love the scene with Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman discussing the witchking of Angmar and the Necromancer. It's all connected. But Bilbo wouldn't have told children all that backstory. I see the Hobbit movies as the truth behind the legend, while the Lord of the Rings wasn't a children's [trilogy of books] and therefore didn't need such a translation.

I didn't mind Radagast, although how the hell did he get from the Eastern forests all the way to Eriador that quickly? Also, I don't like the CGI Orcs too, and the scene in which the white Orc kills a lieutenant for failing is straight up cliché.

for what I was saying, please see my first paragraph.

"Some folks like to have the context and content info in the form of a review to see just how it fits into the narrative."

Not everyone is familiar with the BBFC website, but most DO read some kind of a review.

Had 'The Hobbit' remained as a two-film project, we would have still got Radagast (whose quirkiness and oddity I loved!) but we wouldn't have got Azog (who I do not think worked at all)... another good reason why two films would have been the better option, IMHO!

And we don't know how long there is between Radagast's encounter at Dol Guldur and him encountering the Company at Eriador... I'm betting it's probably a few days between each event, in which case, Raddy could have feasibly gotten there if he used his magic to speed his bunny-powered journey on it's way!

It's a fantasy movie, use your imaginations...

I'm really looking forward to seeing this. Maybe twice. Or possibly three times!

The Hobbit is indeed a kids book, The Lord of the Rings on the other hand is very much an adult fantasy. For those who thought that the first Hobbit was to much cartoony, This will get a lot more dark and serious for movie two and three.

If they are going with the book illustrations of the same artist that did The Lord of the Rings Smaug will definitly have four legs and two wings, as seen in the prelude of the first Hobbit.

I made a point - and not for the first time - about the excessive coverage given to the 12A/PG-13 rating on this site. Personally, I don’t care to read about the ins and outs of a particular rating on a near weekly basis, and so I actively avoid those articles. However, the issue appears to be shoehorned into every other post - regardless of topic. While I understand it may be relevant from time to time; I would prefer not to read the same static set of personal thoughts and opinions over and over again. So, I decided to give some feedback - again. That’s when you came along and mentioned that you like to know about this sort of info - from a parental perspective. Which is fair enough. However, one of the major goals of the BBFC is to provide information to parents regarding the content of the films they classify. They have offered this info for many years now.

If you are genuinely concerned about the movies your kids view, the BBFC really is the go-to source for parents. As you can see, they offer plenty of narrative specific context.

If Radagast's sled was so magically fast, why not use that to take the Dwarves to Erebor? Yes, I do prefer to think the scene with Radagast must've happened some time before Radagast's arrival. But the way it's presented makes it seem as if Radagast came all the way from Dol Goldur in a matter of minutes.

I'm not a fan of Azog either, but if his storyline feeds into the Battle of the Five Armies, with the Orcs amassing and disrupting the conflict, I'll totally forgive his storyline. The fact that we got more backstory from Thorin, how he got his nickname Oakenshield, and the battle for Moria, made it totally worth it for me. But so far, Azog is completely cardboard in terms of character. Just a monster that wants revenge.

Radagast didn't know anything about the quest for Erebor before or indeed after he encountered the Company, he informed Gandalf of what was happening at the old fortress at Mirkwood then they were suddenly attacked by Wargs and Orcs, which Radagast led away from the Company!

Azog for me did not work in AUJ - visually or dramatically - but the footage we've seem of him in 'The Desolation of Smaug' trailers is so much better, and apparently, he's much more cohesively integrated into the story in this new one... and we get to see his son, Bolg!

I'm thoroughly stoked for this new installment, it has to be said...

It doesn't HAVE to be a really good Lord of the Rings film, it needed to be a really good Hobbit film. The first parts problem is that it was a HORRIBLE film on multiple levels, disingenious, laughable handling of tone, dull, over bloated, horrific comedy enemies, horrible CGI orcs, goblins and goblin caves.... Just creative mistake after creative mistake. Jackson should hang his head in shame. George Lucas levels of bad creative decisions from my point of view.

I agree. The films have become all about Thorin's quest rather, as in the book, about Bilbo's story. I enjoyed the first film and will no doubt enjoy the next 2, but it's almost as if it's a 're-telling' of The Hobbit, not just a film version.

Funny really as 'Eldar' in Tolkien is the name for those Elves who answered the call to travel to Valinor. Thranduil was the son of Oropher, a 'dark elf' or Moriquendi, who refused to travel.

I'm assuming Eldar means something else here though!

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